This is a guest post by Sophie Mayer, who is the author of Her Various Scalpels (Shearsman, 2009) and The Private Parts of Girls (Salt, 2011), as well as The Cinema of Sally Potter (Wallflower, 2009). She recently curated a retrospective of feminist documentary for Punto de Vista, and writes about feminist, queer and independent cinema and literature for Sight & Sound, Horizon Review, Hand + Star, Sound and Music, The F-Word and her own blog, deliriumslibrary.
Set up in 2010 by co-founders Gemma Mitchell and Gabriella Apicella, UnderWire exists, says this year’s co-director Helen Jack, ‘because they both felt, despite the great work of festivals like Birds Eye View, the recognition and celebration of women’s films in the UK was still too marginal.’ In case it seems like Kathryn Bigelow and Susanna Bier’s big wins at the Oscars have levelled the playing field in film, it’s worth noting, as Jack does, that ‘Skillset’s 2009 report showed that women make up only 4% of those working in lighting, 8% in sound and 15% of those in cinematography, and I think some women still feel these crafts (more so than the role of director, arguably) are “male roles” as they’re technical.’ Having worked in film across a variety of roles (but not yet as directors), Mitchell and Apicella felt that craftspeople, both male and female, working in the medium rarely got recognised for their valuable contribution.
The festival will be rewarding these crafts with awards for Best Director, Best Producer, Best Writer, Best Editor, Best Cinematographer, and Best Composer, as well as brand-new awards for Best Film Journalist and the XX Award for films with strong female leads. As the festival will only be screening shorts under 20 minutes long, it looks like there will be a packed programme running from 23-26 November, across multiple genres including music videos. It costs only £5 to submit a film, and you have until 16th October: the submissions page of the festival’s website has specific rules for each award, and an easy-to-use application form to accompany your DVD.
That means that audiences can expect a mixture of exciting new work, while filmmakers – or potential filmmakers – will be able to enjoy a full day of workshops, training, networking and talks. The festival realises that while low-to-no budget filmmaking is, technically, more possible than ever, people often don’t know where to start, or what to do with their film once it’s done; as well as offering a high-profile screening opportunity for completed shorts, UnderWire might inspire you to get shooting.
And also talking, writing and blogging about film, culture and gender: Jack says that she ‘studied film theory so I want to reflect those interests in this year’s festival. We want to open up audiences to conceptual and cultural debates that address women’s position in society from a “big picture” point of view. We want people to come along who might not work in the industry, but who are interested in women’s place in popular culture today.’ Hence the new award for Film Journalism, which is open to any woman with a passion for film culture and 300 words to say about any aspect of it. As Jack points out, Sight & Sound recently ran a competition to find emerging female film critics to redress a gender imbalance in the magazine and across British film criticism, and ‘the quality of entries was brilliant, so the talent’s out there. We just want to get their voices heard more widely.’
If you’re looking for inspiration as a film journalist or filmmaker, Jack suggests Melissa Silverstein’s brilliant blog Women and Hollywood, which ‘is a daily reminder of the inequalities that still dog the industry’, as well as Laura Mulvey’s classic essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ along with the work of inspiring filmmakers such as Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold and Carine Adler, whose films offer a riposte to the idea that, with the abolition of the UK Film Council, the deprioritisation of arts in the UK, rising living costs and the increasing domination of US blockbusters, there’s no future for British cinema.
Reflecting on the urgency of this year’s festival, Jack points out that ‘filmmakers are creative people, and creative people can do a lot with very little. The value is in their imagination, and less so in their pocket. Of course, I don’t want to pretend that a lack of film funding in this country right now isn’t a downer for filmmakers, but you’ll often find peaks of artistry when people are at their poorest. I absolutely think people should continue to collaborate and make short films – they’re a wonderful, and under-appreciated artform and we want to help change people’s perceptions. People begin their career making short-form work, and it’s often when they have the most freedom to be original. UnderWire urges women to go forth and make great films!’